Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protégé. One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way.
“Where are you going?” asked the one.
“I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded.
This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question. He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”
The children met again the following morning.
“Where are you going?” asked the first child.
“I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other.
This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to the teacher.
Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher.
The next day the children met a third time.
“Where are you going?” asked the first child.
“I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.
If life is constant change, why do you expect the same answer for the same question?
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain.
One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras not indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.
His large audience angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to have a debate with Bankei.
“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”
“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.
Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.
Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”
The priest obeyed.
“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”
The priest proudly stepped over to the right.
“You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”
Some time ago we were discussing about zen and koans.
So we can take a bit of time now and draw the main concepts of zen:
Zen is a branch of Buddhism
Buddhism has two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana.
From this last one, there are many traditions and one of them is Zen.
The objective in Zen is to achieve enlightenment
Though it receives many names in Western adaptation, such as nirvana or bodhi, the concept is quite simple.
- Insight in past lives
- Insight in the workings of Karma and Reincarnation
- Insight in the Four Noble Truths
There is no specific path
We have been exposed to westernized Eastern philosophies for decades and though there is a general social consensus of understanding, our basic beliefs are so differently grounded that its hard to really grasp some of the concepts.
Hopefully these basic guides will help understanding them a bit better.
A merchant bearing fifty rolls of cotton goods on his shoulders stopped to rest from the heat of the day beneath a shelter where a large stone Buddha was standing. There he fell asleep, and when he awoke his goods had disappeared. He immediately reported the matter to the police.
A judge named O-oka opened court to investigate. “That stone Buddha must have stolen the goods,” concluded the judge. “He is supposed to care for the welfare of the people, but he has failed to perform his holy duty. Arrest him.”
The police arrested the stone Buddha and carried it into the court. A noisy crowd followed the statue, curious to learn what kind of a sentence the judge was about to impose.
When O-oka appeared on the bench he rebuked the boisterous audience. “What right have you people to appear before the court laughing and joking in this manner? You are in contempt of court and subject to a fine and imprisonment.”
The people hastened to apologize. “I shall have to impose a fine on you,” said the judge, “but I will remit it provided each one of you brings one roll of cotton goods to the court within three days. Anyone failing to do this will be arrested.”
One of the rolls of cloth which the people brought was quickly recognized by the merchant as his own, and thus the thief was easily discovered. The merchant recovered his goods, and the cotton rolls were returned to the people.
What did you think of this koan? Share your comments below 🙂
After my last article on mondays, I have received quite a few answers that can be summarized in:
I liked it but its not a fable
To which I answered
A koan is not a fable
As in everything, there is a whole universe of knowledge of whose existence we don’t even think of…and that is something great, because it gives us the opportunity to grow more and more!
Some years ago I reached out and tried to learn about Zen philosophy and its methods.
In the global mind, we have the idea that Zen is being calm, being able to remain like that against all odds and that nothing affects you.
“Today I’m Zen”
“You have to be Zen”
“That is a very Zen person”
Surely we have heard or used these expressions. For all of us that are not savyy in the field….we are wrong.
In the next reflections we will talk about Zen philosophy, so today we’ll stick to koan.
A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the “great doubt”, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice
On the other side, a fable is a Western concept.
Fable is a literary genre. A fable is a succinct fictional story, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities such as verbal communication), and that illustrates or leads to an interpretation of a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly in a pithy maxim.
Hence, whilst the first is a tool to open your mind, the second has a role of promoting values or ideas in a simple and direct fashion.
Why are we atracted so much to fables?
That is stuff for another post!
Bonus for those who read all the way.
These are the best known Koan:
Does a falling tree make noise if nobody can hear it?
How does a one hand clap sound?
Do you find koan interesting? Did you know about them? Share in a comment.